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Your Arterial Lifeline

Are you at risk for hidden complications of atherosclerosis?

Diseases Caused by Atherosclerosis: Beyond the Heart continued...

It's a common problem: up to 39% of 40-year-old men report some degree of erectile dysfunction, and two-thirds of men over 70 have significant symptoms. Atherosclerosis is the most common cause of erectile dysfunction.

Your Digestive System

Atherosclerosis can narrow the arteries that supply blood to the intestines. The result can be mesenteric ischemia: belly pain after eating, when the body tries to ramp up blood supply to the gut, but can't.

"Mesenteric ischemia is actually quite uncommon, although it can occasionally be mistaken for indigestion," according to Silverman.

Your Aorta

The aorta is the main pipeline of blood from the heart to the body. A swollen, weak patch of this muscular artery is called an aortic aneurysm. These aneurysms frequently form in the abdominal aorta. Atherosclerosis is often present in these dangerous outpouchings, which can rupture and cause life-threatening bleeding.

Of course, there are also the "big three" complications of atherosclerosis, caused by blockages in the heart, brain, or legs:

  • Coronary artery disease (heart)
  • Stroke (brain)
  • Peripheral arterial disease (legs)

Together, these diseases are responsible for the vast majority of atherosclerosis complications.

Your Heart

The coronary arteries run along the surface of the heart, delivering vital blood flow. Atherosclerotic plaques can slowly choke them off, resulting in coronary artery disease. 

The most common symptom of coronary artery disease? According to Silverman, it's having no symptoms at all. Some people will experience angina (chest discomfort, often with exertion).

Angina can be stable, meaning symptoms progress slowly or not at all, and don't permanently damage heart muscle.

If a plaque gets disrupted, unstable anginacan result. In unstable angina, chest discomfort changes, becomes more severe, or occurs at rest. "Usually, this means there is inflammation in the plaque," which is now highly dangerous, says Silverman.

Unstable angina can quickly transform into a blood clot, blocking a coronary artery. This causes a heart attack, or myocardial infarction. Heart muscle, starved for blood, dies.

Heart attacks also frequently occur with no prior symptoms of angina. "The initial symptom of a heart attack in 50% of men is sudden death," warns Silverman.

Heart attacks or severe blockages can also cause heart failure. "The heart doesn't really fail, but can't pump blood well enough to keep up with demand," says Mosca. The result can be shortness of breath with activity, or leg swelling. Heart failure is a serious problem, and atherosclerosis is one of the most common causes.

Your Brain

Our brains demand an enormous amount of energy, delivered by blood through a handful of arteries in our necks and heads. A stroke happens when a vital artery delivering blood to the brain becomes blocked. If the artery is not reopened quickly, the brain tissue it supplies dies. Permanent brain damage can result in lasting weakness or difficulty with speech.

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